Shooting over Japan’s head

Japan is alarmed and outraged by North Korea’s missile test

Pyongyang’s provocations raise questions about Japan’s civil-defence readiness and its pacifist constitution
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WHEN the alarm sounded from loudspeakers in the streets and his mobile telephone around 6am on August 29th, Saburo Ito thought it was a warning about an earthquake. But when he read that a North Korean missile was passing overhead the 72-year-old taxi driver panicked and ran out into the garden. The instruction to “evacuate to a sturdy building or basement” was all but forgotten. “I had no idea what to do or where to go,” he says.
 
Japanese have been oddly sanguine about military threats, even as China has grown more powerful and North Korea has tested ever more capable missiles and atom bombs. Japanese refer to this state of mind as heiwaboke, meaning roughly to take peace and security for granted.
 
Such complacency may have been shaken by the North Korean missile that passed over Hokkaido before crashing into the sea about 1,200km to the east. “North Korea’s reckless action is an unprecedented, serious and grave threat to our nation,” said the prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
 
It was not the first time that North Korea had fired over Japan; it had conducted similar tests four times previously (under the guise of satellite launches). But the latest shot was a surprise, not least because recent tensions over North Korea’s testing of long-range missiles had appeared to ease of late. America has grown increasingly alarmed that its bases in Guam, or perhaps America’s western seaboard, could soon be threatened by the regime of Kim Jong Un.
 
Japan has long lived under the shadow of his rockets. What is more alarming is the consensus among analysts that his engineers have probably mastered the technology of making a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile.
 
 
 
The latest test is raising questions about the preparedness of Japan’s civil defences and the ability of its anti-missile systems to keep the country safe. It is also heightening the debate over whether Japan should amend its pacifist constitution.
 
Over the past year the government has tried to reassure citizens of its ability to protect them. It has published guidelines for how to respond to a missile strike: in short, take cover; and, in the event of a nuclear attack, pull a jacket over your head. Twelve towns have held drills for a North Korean missile attack. They have involved children having to curl up under their desks. For some Japanese such measures are not enough. A very small but increasing number have been building nuclear bunkers and buying air purifiers to protect against radiation in case of nuclear attack.
 
Japan enacted civil-defence legislation only in 2004, almost three decades after South Korea. J-Alert, the emergency public-information system, failed to work in some places. Suguru Arai of the disaster-prevention bureau in the town of Erimo, which was under the missile’s trajectory, points to a flaw in the advice for citizens to take cover: “There are no basements and only a few strong concrete buildings in the town.” Chains of command were inadequate in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
 
Japan has a double-layer of missile defences: destroyers with Aegis missile-defence systems cover the whole country; land-based Patriot batteries (pictured on exercise, after the latest North Korean missile flew over) provide “point defence” for smaller areas. “But just as the threat grows, our defence capabilities must grow,” says Narushige Michishita, an analyst.
 
Raising the shield
 
Yet there are growing doubts about whether this is enough. The defence ministry wants to upgrade the Aegis systems on the destroyers and to acquire a land-based version, Aegis Ashore.
 
Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are urging the government to use its budget reserves to speed up the acquisition, rather than wait for an increased defence budget next year. The government is unlikely to add a third layer of missile protection, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile shield that America operates in South Korea, on the grounds that it is too costly.
 
Noboru Yamaguchi, a former lieutenant-general in the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), Japan’s army, says Japan should also raise the number of crews to man Aegis destroyers to relieve overstretched personnel.
 
Japan is trying to improve other capabilities too, for instance by buying F-35 jets. But it lacks the wherewithal to strike at North Korean launch sites if it detects signs of imminent attack—something some officials, including the defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, would like to have. Japan’s military strength will remain limited for as long as it spends less than 1% of GDP on defence (South Korea and America spend 2.6% and 3.3% of GDP respectively).
 
Mr Abe has long thought that Japan should become a normal military power. In 2015 he pushed through legislation reinterpreting the constitution to allow the SDF to play a more forceful role in missions such as peacekeeping. This year he announced plans to rewrite the constitution’s pacifist clause by 2020. That will require approval in both houses of parliament, and a referendum. Mr Abe no doubt hopes the outcry over the latest missile shot will make his task easier. Even so, he would have to overcome great public resistance. And his popularity has been slumping of late amid reported scandals.
 
Over the years some in Japan have asked whether the country needs its own nuclear deterrent. Such talk may begin anew, amid growing doubts about America’s commitment to its allies. Mr Michishita, no hawk, says Japan must have a proper debate about the defence capabilities it needs: “Currently we are like a boxer that does not punch.”

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